Making a sequel to a cherished cultural totem is no easy business, but director Adam McKay and his muse Will Ferrell keep things very classy in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” a modestly less quotable but generously funny new adventure for scotch-and-mahogany-loving 1970s newsman Ron Burgundy, here catapulted into 1980 and the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. Mindful that bigger isn’t often better, McKay and Ferrell have scaled up 2004’s “Anchorman” without compromising its core of freewheeling prankishness, while making a not-unserious movie about the devolution of TV news into pandering infotainment. (Imagine “Network” as directed by Mel Brooks, and starring Gene Wilder.) Sure to leave a smile on the faces of all but the overly botoxed, this early Paramount Christmas present should easily power past the original film’s $85 million domestic haul, and possibly even the $148 million earned by Ferrell-McKay’s 2006 “Talladega Nights.”
Probably the most willfully absurd, go-for-broke major studio comedy since “Airplane!,” the first “Anchorman” was a treasure trove of catchphrases and memes culled from Burgundy’s tongue-twisting vocal warm-ups (“Unique New York”), free-associative exclamations (“By the beard of Zeus!”) and etymologizing of San Diego (pronounced “San Di-AH-go”) as “German for a whale’s vagina.” It was a wonderful role for Ferrell (who co-created the character with McKay), giving full bloom to the idea at the root of the actor’s comic persona: the regressed man-child who beats his chest and struts his stuff, but whose bravado is less than skin-deep. And it was clear that McKay, who himself has a background in improv and sketch comedy, understood how to sell a joke visually better than almost anyone directing American comedies today (most of which resemble overproduced sitcoms).
In “Anchorman 2,” the shock of the new gives way to the comfort of the familiar, but even when McKay and Ferrell repeat an earlier gag — a great-white-shark attack in place of “Anchorman’s” epic bear fight, an episode of temporary blindness that recalls the psychosomatic paralysis in “Talladega Nights” — they find delirious ways of building on and reinventing it, not unlike one of Burgundy’s own unhinged jazz flute solos. This is never truer than in the restaging of “Anchorman’s” rival-newsman rumble, this time with a cavalcade of genuinely surprising surprise guest stars … and an honest-to-goodness Minotaur.
Set seven years after the first film, which riffed on the old Tracy-Hepburn vehicle “Woman of the Year” and its plot about the struggle for gender equality in a male-dominated newsroom, “Anchorman 2” finds Ron having not merely accepted his distaff colleague Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate, once again more than holding her own with the boys) but having married her and sired a child, 6-year-old Walter (Judah Nelson). The former San Diegans have relocated to the Big Apple, where they co-anchor the weekend news for a national network. But trouble arrives in this equal-opportunity paradise when the network’s soon-to-retire weeknight anchor (an amusingly Brokaw-ish Harrison Ford) offers Veronica his chair, while simultaneously handing Ron his walking papers. “It’s me or the job,” bellows the ever-chivalrous alpha male to his career-woman wife, who responds by taking option No. 2 and sending Ron back West with his tail between his legs.
Reduced to working as a low-rent emcee for a Sea World dolphin show, Ron sinks into suicidal despair — until fate knocks in the form of a producer (Dylan Baker) who offers him a gig at an upstart 24-hour cable news outfit called the Global News Network. An amalgam of Ted Turner’s CNN (which also launched in 1980) and Fox News, headed by a boisterous Australian millionaire (Josh Lawson) who’s more Richard Branson than Rupert Murdoch, GNN brings Ron back to New York and into a battle for Veronica’s heart with a simpering, ponytailed shrink (Greg Kinnear, who’s like a live-action Ned Flanders).
But first, he sets off on a cross-country odyssey to reassemble his old Channel 4 news team: too-bromantic-for-comfort sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), ladies-man-on-the-street Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and IQ-challenged weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), first seen hilariously eulogizing himself at his own funeral. Together, these four performers have the charged improvisational energy of the actors in John Cassavetes’ films (a touchstone for McKay and others in the orbit of “Anchorman’s” producer, Judd Apatow), and when they try to one-up each other, or carry a gag past its presumed breaking point, it can be a thing of beauty.
Carell was the original “Anchorman’s” secret weapon, with his running dada banter delivered in monotone, his face scrunched into a deeply concentrated, trying-to-understand-you stare. Here, some of the daffiest moments play out between Carell and that blissful dingbat Kristen Wiig — the Julie Hagerty of her era — as a wallflower GNN secretary who seems to speak Brick’s same, dissociative language. Wiig’s isn’t the only new character to join the “Anchorman” ranks. Having left his erstwhile nemesis, rival newsman Wes Mantooth (Vince Vaughn), back in Cali, Ron now finds himself butting heads (of perfectly coiffed hair) with preening golden boy Jack Lime (James Marsden), who lands the coveted primetime slot at the GNN news desk while Ron and company are relegated to the wee morning hours. Marsden, who proved a deft farceur as the vain storybook prince in “Enchanted,” is a welcome addition, though McKay and Ferrell haven’t fully figured out what to do with him, and after making a spirited entrance he effectively recedes into the background.
Even with a bum slot, Ron won’t go down without a fight. Instead of reporting the real, hard, boring news, he reasons, why not simply give people what they want to see — stories about patriots and cute animals, car chases, sports highlights, and intrepid Brick thrown into the fray of “dangerous” weather? Oh, and onscreen graphics— lots and lots of onscreen graphics. And just like that, Ron Burgundy reinvents TV news as we know it. (Bye-bye Edward R. Murrow, hello Bill O’Reilly.) At first, that new approach doesn’t sit well with GNN’s black-and-proud manager Linda Jackson (“Californication” actress Meagan Good), whose race throws Ron for an even bigger loop than her lack of a Y chromosome. But when the ratings begin to soar, she comes around, and comes on strong to her new star anchor — which is where “Anchorman 2” hits its subversive, lunatic peak. Invited by Linda to a large family dinner at her parents’ house, Ron makes a concerted stab at “breaking down the barriers of race by assimilation,” and the raucous episode that ensues plays like a reverse “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” by way of the immortal jive-talking scene from “Airplane!”
The notion that televised news long ago stopped being insightful or even especially informative is hardly news itself, but McKay and Ferrell have enormous fun with it — some of it at the audience’s own expense — and the jokes keep coming fast and furious. In what other movie (save for Ferrell and McKay’s other movies) can you find Yasser Arafat one minute and the ghost of Stonewall Jackson the next — and a Minotaur — and somehow it’s all of a piece? A further continuation of this “Legend” would hardly be unwelcome.
Collaborating for the fourth time with d.p. Oliver Wood (“Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys”), McKay works to give the movie a slightly stylized look that remains grounded in reality, with richer, more cinematic lighting and carefully composed shots than one typically sees in modern comedies. Between this and the 1978-set “American Hustle,” New York costume houses must have experienced a run on polyester pants during a few months earlier this year.